A funny thing has happened to 76ers. They’ve learned to win. Even without Joel Embiid.
They pulled out a 93-92 victory over the Trail Blazers on Jan. 20 despite not having Embiid available for the end of the game due to a knee injury. They have played 12 games without Embiid since the injury – he returned on Jan. 27 for a loss to the Rockets. Their record without Embiid during that stretch is 5-7.
That’s not too shabby. A 5-7 record with Embiid would have been viewed as progress before this season started. A 5-7 record without Embiid is astounding.
Although it’s true that the Sixers lost five straight games until wins over the Magic and Heat on Thursday and Friday, two of the five losses came against the Spurs. Losing to the Spurs (41-12) is not unique to the Sixers.
The Sixers are developing a winning attitude. That attitude begins with their effort at the defensive end of the court. The Sixers are becoming a difficult team to play against. That’s a far cry from the last couple seasons, when teams routinely rested their best players when they came to Wells Fargo Center.
The Sixers have also received a group effort at the offensive end of the court. During this stretch of games, six Sixers – Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Ersan Ilyasova, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Gerald Henderson – have led the team in scoring.
Although they haven’t led the team in scoring, T.J. McConnell and Nik Stauskas have made important contributions. McConnell distributes the ball effectively, getting the ball to his teammates in good position to score, and has hit clutch shots, including the game-winner during Thursday’s 112-111 victory over the Magic. Stauskas has contributed at the offensive end, which is to be expected. What wasn’t expected is that he’s improved his defense enough so that he’s not a liability at that end of the court.
Shooting comes and goes, but defense can be a constant. With Covington and Noel leading the way, the Sixers are creating a team identity at the defensive end.
When the Sixers started winning games this season, the wins were attributed to Embiid. Now, however, it appears that the Sixers are developing into a team that can win with its best player on the sidelines.
MYSTERIOUS INJURY: The Sixers seem mystified that people are suspicious that Embiid missed three games, returned for a loss to the Rockets that just happened to be on national television, and then missed the next nine games.
Countering a growing impression that the Sixers were tanking again to improve draft position, Embiid and president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo provide more information about the injury. Embiid said Friday that he’s not healthy, explaining that there is swelling in his left knee after activity. Colangelo ended his self-imposed media silence by appearing on The Fanatic and WIP on consecutive days. Colangelo said it’s unlikely that Embiid will play before the All-Star break.
Colangelo resurfaced Saturday, confirming a report that, in addition to the bone bruise, Embiid has a meniscus tear, which Colangelo described as “very minor.” The latest news creates a new concern. Rather than question why Embiid has been sitting out so many game, the focus now should be on why the Sixers risked playing him in the nationally televised game against the Rockets if they knew he had a meniscus tear. Colangelo said the meniscus tear is not the source of Embiid’s pain, and may have been present before his recent injury, but that doesn’t explain why the Sixers would ditch their cautious approach by playing Embiid, who is on track to miss at least 11 games after playing in that game.
DANCING THE NIGHT AWAY: It was not a comforting sight to see Joel Embiid, on the same day on which he said he’s not healthy enough to play, dancing on stage at a Meek Mill concert at Wells Fargo Center. Embiid’s dance isn’t quite the same thing at Andrew Bynum’s infamous flamenco dance while he was sidelined with an injury, but it was disturbing enough that Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo called it disappointing and Sixers head coach Brett Brown said he spoke with Embiid about the incident.
MODEST MILESTONE: The Sixers’ victory over the Heat, who entered the game with a 13-game winning streak, was their 20th win over the season. That’s the most wins the Sixers have recorded during Brett Brown’s four-year tenure as head coach. Brown deserves a lot of credit for his patience and persistence with this young Sixers team.
TRADE RUMORS: Brett Brown created a bit of a frenzy Saturday night when he explained that center Jahlil Okafor didn’t play because of trade rumors swirling before the game. Teams reportedly interested in Okafor have included the Bulls, Pelicans, Nuggets and Trail Blazers. However, there are reports today (Sunday) that the Nuggets traded center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round draft pick (from the Grizzlies) to the Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee and a 2017 second-round draft pick. That would appear to narrow the field for Okafor. The trade deadline is Feb. 23.
SARIC HEATS UP: Dario Saric averaged 21 points during the Sixers’ last three games. That’s double his average for the season. Saric also is living up to his reputation as an excellent passer and had five steals during the Sixers’ last two wins.
HE CAN TAKE THE HEAT: Remember the rumors about Erik Spoelstra when LeBron James was on the Heat? It’s about time that Spoelstra received some respect. He’s in his ninth season as the Heat head coach, which means that the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich is the only NBA coach with a longer tenure with his current team. The Heat started the season 11-30, but reeled off 13 straight wins until losing to the Sixers on Saturday.
UNUSUAL FEAT: Draymond Green’s triple-double against the Grizzlie this past week was unusual. A triple-double isn’t that rare for Green, who has 18 in his career. What was unusual was that Green only scored four points.
The Warriors forward grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out 10 assists and made 10 steals. He became the first play in NBA history to record a triple-double without scoring in double figures, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
KNICKS FEUD: The dysfunctional Knicks hit a new low this week when former Knicks forward Charles Oakley had to be physically removed from his baseline seat, just a few rows behind Knicks owner James Dolan. During the incident, Oakley shoved a security guard.
There are conflicting reports about Oakley’s behavior prior to security removing him. There are reports that Oakley was directing unfavorable comments toward Dolan. The Knicks have banned Oakley from Madison Square Garden.
Meanwhile the Knicks have lost four straight games and are only 1½ games ahead of the Sixers.
BARKLEY-JAMES FEUD: LeBron James took umbrage at Charles Barkley’s criticism of James’ comments about the Cavaliers needing to do more to put better players around him. James brought up a bunch of incidents from Barkley’s past, including when he accidentally spit on a girl at a game (he was aiming for another fan) and put a man through a glass window at a Milwaukee bar.
I’m taking Barkley’s side in this feud. First of all, Barkley’s comments were about basketball. James’ comments were personal. Second, I agree with Barkley that James, who is the greatest player in the world, has tried to win championships by joining forces with other great players – in Miami and then in Cleveland – rather than stick with the Cavaliers and try to raise them to championship level, as Michael Jordan did with the Bulls and Hakeem Olajuwon did with the Rockets.
HONORING GREER: The Sixers are to be congratulated for dedicating a statue to former guard Hal Greer outside their practice facility in Camden. Greer, a 10-time NBA All-Star, spent his entire 15-year career with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers franchise. He averaged 19.2 points during his career and was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players.
SHORT WEEK: The Sixers visit the Hornets on Monday (7 p.m.) and then travel to Boston to face the Celtics on Wednesday (7:30 p.m.) in their final game before the All-Star Break and the trade deadline.